Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Question of Code Revisited: I Think I Can, So Can't I?

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Is it ever acceptable to walk into an interview with a mentality straight out of the Books of Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? In addition to being what is possibly my favorite literary quote ever, I think the idea of telling true lies really epitomizes an issue that so many science writers trying to break into the business are facing: when asked what our skills are, is what we feel comfortable knowing, all that we really know? 

I’ve been turning this over in my brain for a couple of months now. In September I wrote a blog post about whether or not learning to code should be required for journalists. Since I admittedly can’t code, I took the position that it doesn’t need to be required. I also said that in interviews it is totally unacceptable to claim that you can code when you can’t. I didn’t expect that statement to be a part of the post that would get any discussion going, but as it turned out it became for me the most interesting part. When the #sci4hels got talking about it, what seemed like a black and white issue (of course you shouldn’t stretch the truth in an interview!) became a lot less clear and a lot more complicated.

Degrees of truth
A lie is a lie, right? As journalists don’t we value the implicit requirement of honestly above nearly all else? Doesn’t this extend from what we say in a piece to the way we conduct ourselves professionally? So then, can you sit in an interview and when asked if you can code, edit video, make a podcast, etc. say that you can when you’ve never done it before? Is the skill that you have the ability to code or is the skill that you have the ability to learn to code? Learn quickly. In a way so that your potential employer never finds out that the moment you told them you could code you actually couldn’t. Is stretching the truth about your abilities lying? Even if it is lying, is it wrong or is it just a smart business move?

For me, the idea of claiming to know code when I don’t is absurd. Mostly because I don’t stand a chance of learning code in the time between getting hired and needing to use it on a professional level. I know, I know code isn’t THAT hard. I’ve heard that argument, the “you can do if you try” talk. I’m not scared to try, I just know myself enough to know that I’m not going to learn to code in a day. It took several weeks of my seventh grade school year for the Pythagorean theorem to make sense, and that's not exactly hard. I try, but I’m not always a quick study. Maybe as far as being a millennial goes this puts me in the minority, but I know that if I sat in an interview and promised to code at a professional level in a days time I’d be telling a Vonnegut style shameless lie.

Why was this the bane of my middle school existence?
Via Wikimedia Commons
But, I’m not everybody. If the light bulb in your brain turned on a little bit faster when you were twelve and learning that a² + b² = c² then maybe you can learn to code in a day. Maybe code is the most logical thing you’ve ever seen and you will be its master by dinnertime. If you tell a potential employer that you can code, and you are completely sure of your ability to be able to deliver when called upon to use those skills, are you telling a lie? Is knowing what you need to know in order to know how to code the same as just knowing how to code?

I said before that I wasn’t afraid of code, but by sitting in an interview and swearing to the things I can’t do, am I selling myself short? Some of us might just be hiding behind a list of things we can’t do or won’t do and simultaneously shrinking our career prospects. Self sabotage, as it were. Is it principled, or pathetic? Being honest might be a one way ticket straight to the rejection pile. If I communicate the fact that I’d like to learn to code, and would gladly rise to that challenge enough to make someone want to hire me?

I have no faith in common sense
How do you know whether what you know is enough to claim that you know it? As #sci4hels were discussing this issue, what came up over and over was that you have to use common sense. You have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you know you can learn and how you present yourself and your abilities to your employers. If you claim to know something, and you fall flat on your face and don’t deliver the goods, you could do some real damage to your career. Not just because you’ll make your boss angry, not just because you might lose your job, not just because it might be embarrassing; but also because when you fail to deliver what started as a stretched bit of truth unraveled into a shameless lie. Getting caught in a lie in this business is a nail in your career’s coffin.

Sure, telling a lie about your ability isn’t the same as telling a lie in a story. I’m not saying that getting caught lying to an employer about what you can do is going to send your career to Lehrer type depths, but it isn’t going to help you get hired anywhere else. You run the risk of ending up labeled as someone who can’t deliver. Getting paid jobs as a science writer is hard enough, getting them once a pissed off editor tells all their connections not to hire you because you aren’t going to produce the work you say you will is going to be impossible.

This is a business about connections, if you start burning bridges so early in your career, you can really back yourself into a corner. It also speaks to character, doesn’t it? If you’ll lie about your abilities, what else will you lie about? How is anyone supposed to know where your professional ethics fall when you establish yourself as someone for whom a lie isn’t a lie it’s really more of a gray area.

So should we be telling young journalists that it’s okay to claim to be a master of science communication so long as you don’t fall flat on your face? It’s okay to lie, as long as you don’t fail and get caught. Is that really the lesson here? I have zero faith in advising journalism students to use common sense. Zero. If common sense were a clear boundary we wouldn’t still be spending entire class periods discussing what is Facebook appropriate (yes, even that cute picture of you playing beer pong with your Grandma probably doesn’t convey that you are serious about your career) and I’ve sat through those classes so I know very well what kind of questions students are asking. Use common sense doesn’t satisfy.

It's raining code, and apparently we're in the Matrix.
Via Shutterstock
So then what are you supposed to do? The only answer that doesn’t present an ethical dilemma is to just learn code and then you’ll know you know it and you won’t be in a position where stretching the truth even comes up. Even someone with my stance has to agree that code is a nice skill to be packing in your arsenal. But this goes further than code. It could apply to any kind of program or web application; you can’t be an expert in everything. There are definitely going to be jobs that you might want where you don’t know the technology that is being used. It comes down to a personal risk vs. benefits assessment.

There is a lot to lose if you get caught claiming you can do things and not rising to the challenge – your reputation and your future prospects to name a few. There is also a lot to gain by forcing yourself to rise to the challenge to learn new things, get the job and stay competitive in this field. Maybe what new and young science journalists need is the kick in the rear that promising to deliver upon a skill brings. Maybe if I put myself in that situation I’d find that code isn’t nearly as bad as the Pythagorean theorem, and a lot of doors for future job prospects would get opened. Maybe I would torch my promising young career in a blaze of gray area glory.

Common sense is itself a gray area. If we are going to advise journalism students of anything, I’d say informed decision making is probably the way to go. You should be aware of the risks you take when you climb out on a limb with no safety net, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still climb. It has to be a personal case by case call, which really doesn’t help much. Hopefully though, if you think through the risks and the benefits of how you can present your skills, you’ll come to a decision that is the right one for you and your career. So proceed with caution. 


  1. thanks for sharing.